Is Ragnar Relay Selling You Your Experience? Or, Is Everything Really Awesome?

Last night I did 2 things — 1) I came hope from Ragnar: Cape Cod 2015 very, very tired — as you should from running and being sleep deprived for 24 hours and 2) watched The Lego Movie.  Little did I know that watching The Lego Movie would perfectly summarize how I felt about my Ragnar experience.

Prepare for a bad synopsis…In The Lego Movie the Lord Business/President Business seeks complete control of a Lego Universe by ensuring that every member of the Lego society rigidly conforms to the rules by forcing them to only build by the instructions and enforcing a strong PR campaign to convince everybody that ‘everything is awesome’ (as the crazily catchy song from the movie suggests).  He embodies the ideal of corporation and fears the concept of being creative.  Everything must be contrived and controlled.  While there are much deeper explorations into the rise of historic dictatorships, the manipulation of mass media and subterfuge of the fifth estate, as well as themes of youth versus the older generation, I’ll leave some other mind to write about those.

Here’s my thing.  This was the 7th 200-mile/24-hour relay I’ve done.  The bulk of them having been the NH and MA iterations of Reach The Beach, as well as one very local edition of a relay called Mass Dash.  The first Reach The Beach I ran was life changing, and I’m not being hyperbolic.  These things became an addiction.  It was the wild freeness and experience of unbridled running combined with the organic comradeship of your teammates.  The spirit and fire of friendly competition.  Seeing a place like you’ve never seen it before by covering it on foot for 200 miles. Memories and new friendships.  Well…just everything was awesome…that’s what it was.

Last year RTB: MA and Ragnar Cape Cod merged.  Later RTB engaged in a partnership with Ragnar for the NH edition of the race.  For 2012 and 2013 Ragnar scheduled their race within one week of RTB: MA.  These races are massive undertakings requiring support from the state and local municipalities.  Having two back to back are definitely strains on resources and the understanding of residents.  You can put out as many press releases as you’d like, but the scheduling of the first Ragnar Cape Cod to compete directly with an established relay with local connections is tantamount to undeclared war.  When RTB folded in to the more well funded Ragnar, I was a little depressed.  When I ran RTB: NH last year, the first year with the Ragnar partnership, I could feel the difference in my experience in the race.  For lack of a better way of explaining it, it felt more corporate.  While I still had an amazing time in NH, I could sense it feeling more tightly wound.  For instance, during one of my legs, my van got lost and could not meet me at the transition area.  It was nighttime and I was getting cold after waiting for 15 minutes, so I informed the people at the TA that I was running through, and to please inform my van when they arrived of this.  The next leg was a ‘no van support leg’, i.e. they could not stop to give me water/swap another runner in.  They did catch up to me, ask me how I was doing, I said ok and to just meet me at the end.  On arriving, the race officials checked my bib number and called the previous TA to get a description of me to ensure that I was the same person to had left and arrived, they also asked me if my van had stopped, which they hadn’t, and I was informed that if they had or had another runner jumped in we would have been instantly disqualified.  I had just run 16 miles with almost no water — if they handed me a bottle of water, that’s called safety. Two quick things, A) we were not a competitive team looking to place and B) chill out.  In past races, representatives were more understanding of circumstances and generally more relaxed when it came to the ‘rules’, especially when the safety of runners was concerned.

Anyway, this past race there was a distinct corporate vibe that felt like the concept of ‘the man’. The volunteers throughout much other first 2/3’s of the race were miserable and felt like school hall monitors, i.e. — they didn’t want to be there.  An interesting construct of Ragnar is you must supply ‘volunteers’ or pay for them, rather than partnering directly with local organizations for mutual support and awareness.  The race legs were constantly being updated literally until the day before the race was run, which made me question how much support/communication was going on between the race organizers/directors and the towns. This lead to a severely lopsided disconnect between the mileage of van 1 and 2, with van 2 running  substantially more than initially indicated. There were several other little things that contributed to my questioning or Ragnar’s interest in the runners themselves — unmanned open water station where god knows who could put god knows what in the water, for example.

While everyone did have a good time, with the amount of just Ragnar-centric propaganda Ragnar produces, I have to wonder if they are just trying to convince everyone that everything is awesome, that this is the experience of a lifetime like no other has been and no other will be before, the epic, mind body, and soul, feel your very being quiver with life and breathing, the burning heart of the universe in your genetic make up sponsored by and..All. Because. Of. Ragnar.

I will always say whatever gets people motivated to exercise, be healthy (although how ‘healthy’ these things are is always questionable — but you get the idea), I’m all for it.  But much like Tough Mudder, I have to wonder if I’m constantly being told or sold that I’m going to experience something rather than just experiencing it. Am I missing out on the purity of experience?

Ragnar is in multiple states, has over a dozen relays (more including trail relays), they have massive advertising, slick marketing and PR.  I’ve since read of Ragnar squeezing out the local competition in other established relays — like the Wild West Relay and Colorado, much like they did with RTB with direct competition in very localized markets.  While Ragnar proclaims idealized experience, I’m not convinced of their sincerity.

I can’t say that I’ll never run a Ragnar again ( I love running and strangely enough I love spending 24 hours in vans with other runners).  But, I don’t think I’ll ever buy in to their brand.  Reach the Beach and Mass Dash Relay got my passion, I experienced it, and they had me thinking about running another even when I was sleep deprived with legs of lead.  Ragnar got my dollars, which in the end, I think is all they ever wanted.

For the only recap of a relay I’ve written (they’re really hard!) click below.  This is unedited from 2013, where I even give a shout out to Ragnar before I had run any of their events.

Other links/opinions on Ragnar:

From Chrissy Horan, local Boston Runner

Paul Vanderheiden, who puts on the popular Green Mountain relay in VT:


About Graham Runs Boston

Bostonian running around Boston. Team RaceMenu distance runner. Oyster appreciator, beer lover, outside all the time when I can, loosely pursuing a BQ
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